A few years ago, Jenna and I spent a summer in the rural Costa Rican rainforest, interning at the environmental learning center Rancho Mastatal. The second day, Jenna decided to practice yoga, leaving me with an opportunity to ignore her repeated snake warnings and foolhardily wander off alone into the beckoning jungle. I knew there were only were a handful of venomous snake species in the area, and I approached the clearly blazed trail with all the fiery zeal I usually have in the North Country. Hopping from rock to rock to cross a small river, I was roused into a mid-step leap when I noticed a well-camouflaged snake, coiled in a thick ball and firmly holding its ground on the stone that I was about to step on. I barely managed to jump over the snake, which I soon learned was the deadly and highly territorial fer de lance, or terciopelo in Spanish. Unfortunately, my first encounter with the terciopelo was not my last; over the course of the summer I saw more of them than all other types of snake combined.
Amanitas are the terciopelos of the kingdom of fungi. Though the genus only accounts for a small percentage of all mushroom species, it contains some of the most ubiquitous and deadly, making it the culprit for 90% of deaths caused by mushroom poisoning. The vast majority of these deaths are from the destroying angel or death cap, both of which look meatier and more appetizing than most other deadly mushrooms, such as Galerina autumnalis, a nondescript LBM (little brown mushroom). A disproportionate number of people who die of Amanita poisoning in the United States are Southeast or East Asian immigrants, as the death cap bears more than a passing resemblance to the paddy straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea) popular in their homeland.
Incidentally, the Amanita genus is not only the province of death and destruction; it also contains some of the most beautiful and delicious of all mushrooms, such as the orange-red Amanita caesarea, or Caesar’s mushroom, prized by Roman emperors and contemporary Europeans alike. In fact, even the destroying angel and death cap taste pretty good, according to those who have lived to tell the tale. Of course, you should not even consider eating any of the edible Amanitas until you are an expert, though Caesar’s mushroom is the safest and most commonly enjoyed, with its orange cap and yellow gills and stalk.
Once you become familiar with Amanitas, you can recognize the genus from afar by its undeniable regal glow, what David Aurora calls the “Amanita aura” in his classic Mushrooms Demystified (264). Until then, you can distinguish Amanitas by the universal veil that envelops emerging mushrooms in an egg-like cocoon that can look dangerously similar to an edible puffball if you don’t slice it open. The universal veil soon gives way, leaving species-dependent remnants. Most species retain a trademark sack or collar-like volva at the base of the stalk, and some have a volval patch or warts on the cap. Many Amanitas are also equipped with a partial veil that covers the nascent gills, splitting to leave a ring or skirt called the annulus on the upper stalk as the mushroom matures. All Amanitas have white spores and white to off-white or yellow gills, and most are mycorrhizal and therefore found near living trees.
In Ithaca, by far the two most common Amanita species I see are the all-white eastern destroying angel (Amanita bisporigera) and the yellow-capped fly agaric, Amanita muscaria var guessowii, which is closely related to the quintessential red fly agaric of Mario Bros. fame. These mushrooms seem to have an unusual tolerance for drought, and they often stood out prominently this year against a tapestry of dry, cracking soil and crispy leaves. Ironically, the deadly destroying angel is deceptively innocuous looking, while the much less poisonous fly agaric screams “don’t eat me!” with its brightly colored, warty cap.
The destroying angel and its equally deadly relative the death cap (Amanita phalloides) contain amatoxins that cause liver and kidney failure, leading to death in about 60% of cases. Amatoxins, also found in some Lepiota, Conocybe, and Galerina species, are sneaky toxins. Though they cause a bout of gastrointestinal malaise five to 24 hours after ingestion, these symptoms typically then retreat before coming back a full day later and taking their final toll of liver and kidney failure. Medical support should be sought immediately if you have reason to suspect you or a friend was poisoned, but there is no reliable cure for amatoxin poisoning. One Cornell student was lucky enough to survive a destroying angel poisoning in 2006 – read his story here. The destroying angel and the death cap both have volva and annulus, but the latter’s cap often contains greenish, yellowish, or olive hues.
However, a constellation of identifying features should always be used to distinguish any edible mushroom from an Amanita, as the annulus (ring) can fall off and the volva (sack at stem base) can be hidden underground or broken. Thus, the popular field mushrooms of the Agaricus genus, which have no volva, should always be dug up before eating. If you have even an iota of doubt about your “meadow mushroom,” take a spore print as well to rule out the white-spored Amanitas.
The fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) and its slightly more dangerous relative Amanita pantherina do not contain the amatoxins, instead possessing ibotenic acid that the body converts to muscimol. Though these mushrooms theoretically could be fatal in great quantities, there are responsible for very few reported deaths, but many sweaty, nauseated, occasionally enlightening trips. In fact, Amanita muscaria may be humanity’s oldest hallucinogen, enjoyed by Viking berserkers, contemporary Siberian shamans, and likely Vedic peoples as well. Muscimol passes through the body unmetabolized in the urine, a fact that has not escaped users of the sacrament throughout history. Some even claim that drinking the urine of somebody who has eaten the mushroom minimizes the negative physical effects and maximizes the psychedelic properties.
Whether or not this is true, the nature of ibotenic acid/muscimol poisoning does vary significantly depending on the regional variety as well as the preparation method, making recreational use inane. Common physical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, tiredness, loss of muscular coordination, heavy sweating, chills, twitching or convulsions. Cognitive effects range from harrowing to euphoric to harrowingly euphoric (think the Viking bersekers), and commonly include a feeling of heightened strength and an altered perception of the size of objects. No wonder Mario grows when he grabs a mushroom!
It’s not just digital Italian plumbers and berserkers who like the fly agaric –various animals apparently get their kicks from them as well! While maggots certainly tend to infest fly agaric stems, bigger-brained creatures also like to take part in the fun of helping these fungi spread their spores. There are many historical and anecdotal reports of reindeer eating them in Siberia, and mycologist Tom Volks says he has seen squirrels in Wisconsin hording their stash safely out of biped reach in a tree canopy. Indeed, while slug and insect damage are common on most mushroom species, the fly agaric is one of the only fungi I see that frequently has several large chomps taken out of the cap, clearly mammalian in origin. I have long wondered if the culprits are deer, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, or a combination of furry denizens of the forest. Perhaps one day I will put a “myco-cam” next to an emerging fly agaric and catch the guilty party red-handed!
Northwestern and European mushroom hunters have long known the fly agaric to be a porcini indicator, something I have found to be true of the yellow-capped Amanita muscaria var guessowii more common in the Northeast as well. Porcinis are currently in season in the Northeast, so be sure to pay extra attention if you spot a fly agaric in the woods!
Though Amanitas can be as deadly as even the fiercest terciopelo, they don’t bite! While even the most seasoned rainforest explorer can still fall victim to a deadly snake, mushroom experts do not die of Amanita poisoning. In fact, you don’t even have to be a mushroom expert to avoid having Amanitas for your last supper – all you have to do is be responsible, and only eat mushroom species whose identity you are 100% sure of. Many gourmet mushrooms are almost foolproof once you have basic training, such as black trumpets, lion’s mane, hen of the woods, and chicken of the woods. And, quite frankly, if you even have to consult a field guide to rule out whether your mushroom is a deadly Amanita or an edible look-a-like, you probably shouldn’t be eating it to begin with!